PILLAGER -- Common wisdom says if a Mom and Pop bait shop is to survive it either must get its own bait or sell a whole lot of bait if it buys from a wholesaler. The Brown family does both.
First as Brown's Bait in Motley, where Charles and Dora Brown operated for 40 years, and today as North Country Bait in Pillager, where son Steve, 51, carries on the family business, the Browns have seined every minnow they've sold. They also sell to other shops, a job that keeps Steve busy 14 hours a day in summer and 10 hours a day in winter. He's done it since he was a boy and enjoys the work.
"There's something about being around minnows that's different from other jobs," Brown said while loading the truck for delivery earlier this week. "My brother took a year off from collecting bait. He'll probably get back into it. It's kind of in his blood, too."
Demand for bait has increased over the past 10 years, Brown said, and so has competition from other bait collectors. Roughly eight others work within 30 miles of Brown. Territiories are staked randomly and lines occasionally are crossed. Brown said when he runs into another collector he moves on.
Like most Mom and Pop shops, North Country Bait in Pillager is open every day. The wholesale end of the business keeps owner Steve Brown in the field from 10 to 14 hours per day year-round.
"Everybody more or less respects each other's territory," he said.
But more competitors in the field has changed the atmosphere.
"Thirty years ago I never heard my father talk about the other guys as competition," Brown said. "But now you do. It's tougher nowadays. There used to be more bait. The wild bait in the river has been seined out. Last winter was cold and a lot of dealers got froze out."
Brown and his wife Rosemary bought their house from Rosemary's uncle in 1984 and five years later built the bait shop in the back yard. It's a simple, well-organized, no-nonsense store that Brown said he wishes was a little bigger.
Steve Brown once collected his own leeches. Today he buys from a wholesaler but also has enough on hand to sell to other bait shops.
"We put it up kinda quick," he said. "We may add on in the back."
Family members, including Rosemary, who also cooks at Mr. Ed's in Motley, son Adam, Rosemary's father Walter Ausland, and Steve's mother Dora work regular shifts behind the till.
"Without the help of the family we wouldn't make it," Steve said.
Three signs advertise the shop from the main street of Pillager: a portable with a special or some necessary information like "Buy Licenses Here," a permanent with the name of the shop and another with the words "Red Tails."
Steve Brown saved money by building his own minnow tanks for North Country Bait. This do-it-yourself trait is shared by many Mom and Pop bait shop owners.
Small shops must find ways to cut costs and Brown has done it by building his own minnow tanks. In the bed of his pickup is a six-compartment aerated tank he built to haul bait. Monday morning it was loaded with gallons of redtail, sucker, fathead and crappie minnows, a cooler with thousands of leeches and another with nightcrawlers. Brown picked leeches and nightcrawlers for his parents' store but today buys both from wholesalers.
"Most of the (big leeches) around here have been caught out," he said. "I used to pick nightcrawlers around Staples, but it's not worth the time anymore."
Selling bait to 20 shops in a 70-mile radius lets Brown observe a lot of bait businesses. The successful, he said, have good location in common. In many places that favors gas station/convenience stores. It's a win-lose proposition for a retail/wholesale store such as North Country Bait. More sellers means more competition for the store. But more sellers also means more demand for wholesale bait.
Brown moved to Alaska in 1972 and worked as a baggage handler for Wien Airlines for the next four years. He came home because the bait business is "in my blood."
Can the Mom and Pop bait shop survive? Brown considers the question and answers it in the same matter-of-fact manner in which he answers any question.
"I think it can, but I don't know if you can make it with a little store. You have to keep growing or lose it."
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